In 1895, H.G. Wells wrote the widely acclaimed novel, The Time Machine, recounting an imaginary avant-garde device that instantly thrust travelers into another age. Climb aboard my Yesteryear Time Machine for a 1910 visit to downtown Johnson City, a picturesque community of about 8500 inhabitants.
After activating the time lever, we find ourselves in Market Square gazing at the Lady of the Fountain, an imposing six-foot solid bronze statue. A nearby watering trough is large enough for six to eight harmonious horses to stand side-by-side and enjoy a refreshing drink after a weary trot to town. We immediately realize that we are in another era when we spot a grocery store sign advertising sirloin steak at 25 cents per pound.
The business district is no longer dusty or muddy. Instead, it has nice pebble block brick streets and concrete sidewalks, resulting from street improvements made about two years prior. Crossing streets in 1910 is less stressful because automobiles are nearly non-existent, having come into limited production only seven years earlier. Even so, we must keep an eye on the modern electric trolleys that constantly travel from the inner city to several remote locations.
Our casual dress appears to be out of step with local residents; the ladies are adorned in long dresses and the men are decked out in coats and ties. A much-ballyhooed discussion around town is the forthcoming relocation of the remains of city founder, Henry Johnson, and his wife, Mary, from a residence off Fairview Avenue to Oak Hill Cemetery.
Street vendors are everywhere, peddling their wares from wagons, positioned at strategic locations for attracting customers. Fountain Square appears to have the highest concentration of them. Shoppers park their wagons anywhere they desire without fear of receiving a ticket from a meter attendant meandering down the street on a mule.
A brochure from the Commerce Club (later renamed Chamber of Commerce) indicates a profitable business opportunity for wooden casket manufacturers. This need is generated by a growing populace and an abundance of low-grade chestnut and other suitable timbers in the area.
The Bee-Hive, a large variety department store occupying three stories and a basement at 209 E. Main (later the site of Parks-Belk), is a favorite among locals. Another attention grabbing shop is the ever-growing New York Bargain House (111 Buffalo), advertising “Good Merchandise Cheap.”
Two banks, the City National and the Unaka National and two twice a week newspapers, The Comet and The Staff, serve the town’s needs. Interestingly, tax rates are said to be high at $3.40 per hundred, but property is assessed at no more that 25% of its actual value.
Before returning to 2006, let’s patronize one of the downtown eateries – the American Restaurant (111 W. Market), Silver Moon Restaurant (113 Railroad Street), Greek Restaurant (117 W. Main) and Idol Inn Café (future site of Byrd’s Restaurant). One tempting menu option offers two pork chops, beans, potatoes and baked apples, topped off with coffee and cake – all for only a quarter.
As we embark the Yesteryear Time Machine for our return to the present, we ponder what we would have found had we instead chosen to travel downtown … in the year 2110.